Irene knocks out power to nearly 200,000 homes

By CHRIS KAHN | August 27, 2011 | 10:10 AM EDT

Nearly 200,000 homes in North Carolina are without power as Hurricane Irene slams into the state.

Winds of up to 80 miles per hour whipped ashore Saturday morning, ripping power lines from poles and snapping trees in half.

Hardest hit were Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, N.C., where Progress Energy reports 190,000 customers without power. Most of those customers are residences.

"We expect those numbers to increase," Progress spokeswoman Julia Milstead said.

Duke Energy also reports about 2,300 customers without power, mostly in Durham, N.C. SCE&G, which serves most of South Carolina, says it restored power to 2,500 customers last night.

Power companies have called in several hundred workers from surrounding states to tend to the disaster. Crews are rushing out between bands in the hurricane, when the wind and rain eases. They're looking for the worst damage first at towering transmission lines where an outage could put an entire county in the dark.

Much more damage is expected as Irene travels up the Eastern Seaboard.

An unusually large number of people may be affected by Irene. That's because it is forecast to stay just offshore_and thus retain much of its power_as it inches up the coast from North Carolina to New England. When a hurricane hits land, it quickly loses steam.

The entire Eastern Seaboard lies in the storm's projected path, with flooding and damage from winds likely. North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island have declared emergencies. New York City issued evacuation orders for people in low-lying areas.